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Fossil Fuel Contamination Alters Anacostia Catfish DNA and Ups Tumor Levels

Date Posted: May 18, 2004

Environmental Contaminant biologists with the Chesapeake Bay Field Office found that vehicle emissions and road runoff are linked with a high tumor rate in brown bullhead catfish from the Anacostia River, Washington, D.C. The study found a liver tumor prevalence of 50-68%, equivalent to the highest reported for U.S. rivers. The Service conducted the study for the Anacostia Watershed Toxics Alliance, a public/private partnership established in 1999 to clean up this long-neglected urban river. Details: Automobile exhaust, asphalt particles, spilled engine oil and other fossil fuel products entering the Anacostia River in Washington, DC, is alterting the DNA of bullhed catfish and driving their liver and skin tumors to a "surprising" level, according to a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey. The catfish, collected in 2000 and 2001 from three areas of the river, had liver tumor rates as high as 68 percent and skin tumor rates as high as 23 percent. An area is considered highly contaminated when liver tumor rates are above 5 percent, and skin tumor rates, above 12 percent. Fred Pinkney, the Service’s lead investigator, said the Anacostia tumor rates are equivalent to the highest ever reported in the Great Lakes, where similar surveys have been conducted for the past 25 years. “The tumor prevalence in young fish provides even stronger evidence that high levels of cancer-causing chemicals are entering the river,” said John Harshbarger, a fish pathologist at the George Washington University Medical Center. A DNA analysis of the fish, performed by Bill Reichert of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle, showed that both young and old fish had similar concentrations of chemically-modified DNA, believed an early step in tumor development. The analysis found polynuclear aromatic compounds – formed from the burning of gasoline, coal and fuel oil and a major component of asphalts and tars – attached to the DNA. Some of the compounds are known carcinogens. Once in the river, the compounds accumulate in sediments, where they are ingested by fish. “The levels of chemically modified DNA in Anacostia brown bullheads are among the highest that we have measured anywhere,” Reichert said. Since 1995, the District of Columbia Department of Health has advised the public not to eat catfish, carp or eels that are caught in either the Potomac or the Anacostia Rivers. The latest study was financed by the Anacostia Watershed Toxics Alliance, a public- private partnership of federal, state and local agencies working with non-profit organizations and utilities to clean up the river. A report and fact sheet on the study is available from the Fish and Wildlife Service Chesapeake Bay Field Office's web site. An article discussing the study in depth appears in the March 2004 issue of the scientific journal, Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry (link to article provided below).

Contacts:

Fred Pinkney 410-573-4519

Links:

Pinkney, Alfred E., Harshbarger, John C., May, Eric B., Reichert, William L. TUMOR PREVALENCE AND BIOMARKERS OF EXPOSURE AND RESPONSE IN BROWN BULLHEAD (AMEIURUS NEBULOSUS) FROM THE ANACOSTIA RIVER, WASHINGTON, DC AND TUCKAHOE RIVER, MARYLAND, USA Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry 2004 23: 638-647

Studies Focus on the Health of Washington D.C.'s Rivers

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Evaluating the Health of the Potomac River Watershed: High Rate of Tumors in Catfish from the Anacostia Rvier in Washington, D.C.

Fish and Wildlife Service Chesapeake Bay Field Office, at http://www.fws.gov/chesapeakebay/

National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, Northwest Fisheries Science Center - http://www.nwfsc.noaa.gov/

Last updated: February 13, 2013